Rikers Island inmates traded their orange and yellow prison outfits for caps and gowns Tuesday. NY1’s Dean Meminger filed the following report.
It was graduation day Tuesday on Rikers Island. A total of 47 inmates, teenagers and adults, received their GEDs.
“Even though I was arrested, I feel that I was rescued," said inmate Abdul Cornelius. "Basically, I think it saved my life. And turned it into a positive so that I can achieve other goals,"
For Abdul's mother, Regina, it was a very difficult time but still a proud moment.
"This is one of the happiest days of my life, in this respect," she said. "He has really, really shown the effort that he wants to do it and he has done it. This is a big deal."
Most on Rikers are serving less than a year after committing a crime. But this was not a day to talk about that. Family members came to Rikers to cheer on the graduates, who are looking for a new start after making bad decisions.
“Sometimes we just waste time with the wrong people and end up selling ourselves short," said inmate Jamar Allah. "That is exactly what I ended up doing."
Arisleida Durante was jailed twice. She was pregnant both times.
“Giving birth to my two sons in jail, it really changed my whole life's point of view,” she said. “I want to be a lawyer. I want to be somebody. I want to be a good mother.”
There have been a number of schools on Rikers but they have been criticized for not doing a good job. East River Academy was brought in two years ago to help change that.
“They have dealt with very difficult choices in their past," said Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. "That is why they are here. But we also expect them to move forward and leave the island to make choices that are a lot more positive.”
"How are they using their time to be ready when they get home?" said Correction Department Commissioner Dora Schriro. "So we are about rebuilding the past and building futures."
Clearly, this is a step in the right direction for these students. Long-time educators on Rikers Island said they have seen a lot of inmates get their GEDs or high school diplomas behind bars and go on to become success stories.
"He bought a house. He is a viable worker. He has gone on to college," said teacher Sharmaine McCants-Collins. "A lot of our students go on to college.”